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Why stopgap center fielder makes sense for Cubs in '23

Ryan Herrera Avatar
November 23, 2022

The Cubs’ future in center field looks bright, especially after their center fielder of the future took home an impressive piece of hardware Tuesday.

Minor League Baseball and Rawlings announced their 2022 Gold Glove winners, selecting just nine players — one for each defensive position — out of all the teams in the 11 full-season minor leagues. And arguably the most exciting player in the Cubs’ system — and essentially the club’s consensus top prospect — in Pete Crow-Armstrong took the crown.

It’s just another reminder of how much Crow-Armstrong exploded onto the scene this season. Of course, the offensive success (175 wRC+ in 183 plate appearances with Low-A Myrtle Beach, 126 wRC+ in 288 plate appearances with High-A South Bend) really helped put him on the map and on different top-100 prospect lists.

“I think offensively, [he] just blew us out of the water with what he’s able to do with the bat,” said Dustin Kelly, who was recently promoted to Cubs hitting coach after spending the last two seasons as the minor league hitting coordinator. “Obviously, we knew defensively and the speed and all of those tools were there. But for him to put up the power numbers and do what he did offensively was really impressive.”

Still, when the Cubs dealt Javier Báez and Trevor Williams to the Mets in exchange for the now 20-year-old center fielder at the 2021 trade deadline, the glove was the enticing tool Crow-Armstrong had in his arsenal. After not playing in the Cubs’ system immediately after the trade due to a season-ending torn labrum in his right shoulder that he suffered while still with the Mets, he completed his first full season in the minors with 194 putouts and six assists in 91 games as the center fielder across both levels. And if that isn’t enough to convince you of his Gold Glove case, a couple of his best highlights from this year should do the trick:

As Crow-Armstrong puts everything together in the minor leagues, fans are becoming more and more anxious to see him make his debut with the Cubs (and rightfully so).

However, even the most optimistic of scenarios don’t give Crow-Armstrong a strong shot at reaching the majors next season. After being drafted 19th overall out of high school in 2020, he didn’t play the rest of that year due to the lost minor league season. He then played just six games in 2021 because of the shoulder injury, and this season, he never made it past High-A.

Yes, he has the makings of the team’s center fielder of the future. The Cubs may think so, too, but that doesn’t mean they will be rushing his development just to get him to the big leagues next season.

“We don’t put limits on any of our guys. We’re not going to rush things, either,” vice president of player development Jared Banner said in July. “Ultimately, his performance is going to tell us what he’s ready for.”

As great as Crow-Armstrong’s 2022 was, and as great as his 2023 might be, it still feels like a long shot that he’ll get anything more than a cup of coffee toward the end of the season. That in itself would be an accomplishment, but again, that’s the optimistic view.

That also comes into play when considering the Cubs’ plan to compete next season. It wouldn’t make much sense to bank on a prospect who’ll turn 21 years old in March to provide much of an impact on a competitive big league club next season, much less come up and immediately become the everyday center fielder.

There aren’t many good in-house options to be the Cubs’ starting center fielder next season, either. Rafael Ortega was non-tendered last week, leaving Christopher Morel and Nelson Velázquez as the only realistic options left. But even they don’t provide a whole lot of confidence. Morel (-5 defensive runs saved, -4 outs above average) and Velázquez (-6 DRS, -4 OAA) rated the worst defensively in the group of Cubs center fielders who overall finished last in MLB with -18 DRS and -7 OAA at the position.

Two possible prospect promotions are also likely off the table for at least the early portion of next season. Brennen Davis is still working his way back from various injuries that cost him most of the 2022 season, and Alexander Canario won’t be ready to start the year due to surgeries to repair a fractured left ankle and a separated left shoulder (as Banner told reporters at the GM Meetings in Las Vegas earlier this month).

So, what makes the most sense for the Cubs to fill that hole in an attempt to compete next year? Looking outside the organization for help.

“I think it was always most likely that we go outside,” Hoyer told reporters at the GM Meetings, “and certainly [Alexander] Canario’s injury, Brennan [Davis’] setback, I think made that just that much more obvious. So, I think we can expect that.”

The market for center fielders is rather thin, and you can probably cross Aaron Judge (who’s more of a right fielder, anyway) and Brandon Nimmo off the list. But that still leaves two center fielders who fit exactly what the Cubs need — for next season, at least.

Cody Bellinger and Kevin Kiermaier are seen as potential fits in center — NBC Sports Chicago’s Gordon Wittenmyer reported interest on the club’s side as well — and after Bellinger was non-tendered by the Dodgers and Kiermaier’s option was declined by the Rays, either one is there for the taking.

But why would the Cubs want either to be their starting center fielder in 2023? Why take a chance on a former MVP who completely fell off at the plate the last two seasons? Why take a chance on a 32-year-old who was limited to 63 games in 2022 due to left-hip injuries?

Because with either of them, the Cubs can expect to get a veteran center fielder with a solid glove on a prove-it contract.

Bellinger won a Gold Glove Award in 2019, and only in 2021 did he record a negative-DRS in center (but still only -1). Kiermaier won three Gold Glove Awards and a Platinum Glove Award in 2015, and before his injury-riddled 2022, he’d recorded seven straight seasons of double-digit DRS. The Cubs need an upgrade in their center-field defense, and they could reasonably expect either of those two to do that next season.

Neither Bellinger nor Kiermaier are expected to command a long-term deal this offseason. In that scenario, both would be playing to land a bigger contract next winter. And by that point, Davis or Canario may have already come up and shown they can handle the position, or the Cubs may be confident that Crow-Armstrong isn’t much further away from taking the spot for himself.

Either way, the Cubs shouldn’t go into next season counting on an in-house center fielder to take a step forward. There are multiple options on the market who would be major upgrades defensively, and it would make sense to bring one in on a short-term deal to help bridge the gap while giving them a shot to regain their form at the plate.

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